Charles Higham, who has died aged 81, was a much-feared and notoriously bitchy celebrity biographer whose works fell squarely in the “unauthorised” category. www.telegraph.co.uk
The British-born Higham, who began his career as a poet, wrote some two dozen biographies, exposing the “guilty secrets” of, among others, Howard Hughes, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, Orson Welles and the Duchess of Windsor.
His most sensational work was Errol Flynn: The Untold Story (1980), in which he alleged that the swashbuckling matinee idol was an unscrupulous Nazi spy and rampant bisexual whose appetites led him to Mexico for the procurement of young boys and who had affairs with Truman Capote, Howard Hughes and Tyrone Power — to name only a few.
The book became a bestseller but was roundly denounced, not only by the actor’s widow but also by other biographers, who accused Higham of altering FBI documents to sustain his charges against Flynn. Higham himself was forced to admit that he did not have any direct documentary evidence that Flynn was a Nazi, though he claimed to have “pieced together a mosaic that proves that he is”. Flynn’s family subsequently tried to sue for libel, but since the actor had died in 1959 the suit was dismissed.
The Flynn biography was a fairly typical example of Higham’s approach, and much of what he wrote about the rich and famous (particularly those who were no longer alive to sue) was regarded by many critics as the product of an overactive and self-serving imagination.
In his unashamedly self-promoting memoir, In and Out of Hollywood (2009), Higham presented himself as a sort of Chandleresque figure, dedicated to sniffing out other people’s darkest secrets. Yet as he admitted, he hated interviewing people for his books, and critics remarked on how much of his work was based on the testimony of anonymous witnesses.
The themes of fascism, closet homosexuality and sexual perversion that had proved so productive in the case of Flynn were themes that Higham would mine again and again. That his motives were probably financial is suggested by his admission in an interview that there was “certainly a difference of an enormous number of sales” between his poetry books and his biographies. His Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life (1988) might have been more aptly titled “Fascist, Lesbian Harlots at the Court of St James”, suggested one reviewer, who went on to observe that for the Duchess to have been guilty of even half the peccadilloes attributed to her, “early on she would have succumbed to exhaustion”.
Higham claimed she was the mistress not only of Count Ciano, but also of Ribbentrop. He maintained that the Duchess’s attractions included exotic sexual techniques that she had picked up on visits to the brothels of Peking, which allowed the Prince of Wales to make the best of his supposedly modest endowments. He set a tone for vilification later explored by other biographers.
Meanwhile, Higham’s Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart (1989, with Roy Moseley) included allegations of homosexuality, experiments with LSD, wife-beating, miserliness, and a claim that the actor was in the grounds of actress Sharon Tate’s house “visiting a young male” on the night in 1969 when Charles Manson’s so-called “family” went on its infamous killing spree.
The credibility of these and other allegations was undermined by the book’s numerous inconsistencies: at one point Higham concludes: “There is no evidence that the relationship between Cary and Sophia Loren was physically consummated” — only to refer to the actress four pages later as Grant’s former lover. The work was variously described as “tongue-smackingly nasty” and “prissily judgmental”, with one critic going so far as to dismiss it as a “back-stabbing rat’s book, the literary equivalent of grave robbing”.
Higham won similarly excoriating reviews for Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (1993), in which the tycoon was presented as a gay sadist who (in between affairs with Grant, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn) frequented male brothels and hauled boy prostitutes into his car for sex. One reviewer observed that Higham seemed to have “reached the point where most of his subjects have slept with one another”. None the less, his biography (which also claimed that Hughes had been centrally involved in Watergate and probably died of Aids) proved particularly lucrative as it formed the basis of Martin Scorcese’s 2004 film The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the eccentric magnate.
“There are two ways to write a Hollywood biography,” a critic observed. “Either you take eight years, as A Scott Berg did with Goldwyn, or you take a few minutes, the way Charles Higham seems to do with everything he writes.” Given his record, therefore, it is difficult to know how much of his account of his own early life is to be believed.
Charles Higham was born in London on February 18 1931. His much-married father, Charles Frederick Higham, had risen from being a £3-a-week salesman to found his own advertising business and had sat as Conservative MP for South Islington from 1918 to 1922 (he was later knighted). Young Charles, the son of his father’s fourth marriage, spent his early years in considerable comfort, attended by servants and equipped with a wardrobe of miniature Savile Row suits.
His parents divorced when he was very young, and his father’s new wife, he claimed, sexually abused him. After his father died, when Charles was seven, he went to live with his mother, now remarried, a mentally unstable, sexually rapacious alcoholic, according to his account.
After leaving school Charles found work in a bookshop and began to write poetry, publishing two volumes by the age of 22. In 1952 he married Norine Cecil and two years later they moved to Australia, where he continued to write poetry, compiled a number of horror anthologies and began writing about film.
His growing awareness of his own homosexuality soon brought an end to his marriage (his wife, meanwhile, confessed that she loved a woman) and he threw himself into pre-Aids era promiscuity, featuring orgies, prostitutes and bath houses.
In Australia, Higham began to write about celebrities for a newspaper which sent him on assignments to Hollywood. He was researching a book on Orson Welles when he accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1969. Soon afterwards he moved to Los Angeles and became a Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times.
In 1970 the university published his Films of Orson Welles, in which he suggested that the director suffered from a “genuine fear of completion” that led him to abandon projects when they were nearly finished in order to be able to blame others for their flaws.
The book was castigated by the film historian Peter Bogdanovich as being so full of inaccuracies and unsupported conclusions that it amounted to “an illustrated textbook on how to criminally impair an artist’s career”. Although this was a pattern Higham would repeat many times, his first commercial success — Kate (1975), a biography of Katharine Hepburn — had been, unusually for him, authorised.
Higham was not pleasant company. He had an irritating habit of insulting waiters in restaurants, and often sat at the table for 45 minutes before deigning to consult the menu.
He lived with his long-term partner Richard Palafox, a Philippino nurse, until Palafox’s death in 2010.
Charles Higham, born February 18 1931, died April 21 2012